Forgive me, but I haven’t quite let go of my obsession with the hippies. My current interest began last October when my daughter wanted both of us to dress up like hippies for Halloween. Is that what it’s come to, I thought to myself, the mainstream has so processed and packaged the counterculture movement of the 60s that the images now appear primarily as retro-chic? We were on hipster Vermont Avenue yesterday and I swear to you, the clothes in every boutique’s window looked like they were straight out of Haight-Ashbury. Except instead of the actual vintage ensembles that the hippies put together for pennies, these were designer duds costing hundred of dollars an item. Leah’s main exposure to hippies comes from the musical “Hair” which we saw together last year. We’ve had discussions about what the hippies represented and how they compare to the young people today who oppose the war and other elements of our culture. I think Leah understands to some extent what the hippies were about back then but mostly she just thinks they look really cool.
When I was immersed in the L.A. Times archives the other day, I was amazed at the explosion of articles about hippies in 1966 and 1967, both positive and negative. And then, all of a sudden, interest plummeted and the only references seemed to be sad accounts of drugged-out kids who were destroying their lives. Again, I’m sure these media images did not fully reflect the reality of the situation and there’s no question in my mind that the actions of the hippies and other groups in the 1960s permanently changed the landscape of American society in many ways. But they sure did not get positive press for long.
To give just a small sampling of the media’s perception of hippies following their brief moment in the spotlight, a front page article on December 29, 1968, declared (already) “Hippie Era Nearing End.” A professor at Claremont College had put together a college course about the hippies (surely the death knell for a counterculture movement) called “Psychedelia for Squares” and stated in the article that “hippies are showing signs of fading into history, but their music and art will linger on.” How right he was. The goal of Dr. Christian Schriner’s course was to discover values in psychedelia and set up “bridges of continuity” between these values and the rest of society. Schriner stated that “drugs have contributed to much of the unhappiness and unrest among hippies today.” He planned to take his students on field trips to a psychedelic night club and to observe a love-in at Griffith Park. The class would study the music of Donovan, the Doors, the Beatles, and Bob Dylan. Where do I sign up?
Remember those ads geared to hippies that I mentioned in my previous post? By the early 70s these were replaced by anti-hippie advertisements in the paper, especially by razor companies experiencing a new boon in sales. “The Clean-Cut Look Is Here!” Schick blared in a full-page ad. “A shave so clean and easy…maybe even the hippies will want to look clean-cut! (Then again, maybe not.) Certainly for YOU, this is THE razor! For the majority of us, the clean-cut look is here. And, who knows, before long, it may be ‘in’ with everyone!”
In 1966 and 1967 there were many articles articulating the political and social goals of the various hippie factions. But by 1970, hippies were frequently lumped together with other controversial groups considered to be on the fringe of society. One article detailed a grant from Stewart R. Mott, son of General Motors’ Charles Stewart Mott, for organizations that would “help women wanting abortions, do research on extrasensory perception and human sexual response, and aid hippies.” There’s a triumvirate you’re unlikely to see today.
Two hippie types, one handsome and well-dressed, the other beared and shabby, were walking along Hollywood Blvd. soliciting alms.
“We’ll take quarters, dimes, nickels or pennies,” one called out good-humoredly, “we’re not proud.”
The other held out a 2-pound coffee can, jiggling the few coins in it, and varying the pitch by urging passersby, “We need help. Drop something.”
At Cahuenga, a woman they approached stared scornfully at them and declared indignantly, “You ought to be ashamed of yourselves! Why don’t you get jobs?”
“Lady,” one retorted, “you wouldn’t want us to deprive some deserving guys of their living, would you?”
Okay, not very funny, but pretty representative of the changing perception of hippies, especially those who congregated on Hollywood Boulevard. The merchants there weren’t laughing. A 1972 piece about the increasingly decrepit condition of Hollywood Blvd. blamed the hippies for the dearth of tourists. “The hippies ask for money and I’m afraid of making them mad,” one timid visitor reported. The storeowners on Hollywood Boulevard were taking legal actions to “encourage the subcultures to find other nesting places.” Hippies were grouped together with the prostitutes and “Jesus freaks” as responsible for the deterioration of this once vaunted street. For some tourists these groups were the attraction but the merchants were disgusted by their presence. “Now what we have are those damn hippies and religious cults. It makes it uncomfortable for nice people to come down here,” one storeowner commented. “Sure, people may come to see the creeps—but they never come back.”
Even the romanticized notions of Haight-Ashbury came tumbling down during this period. “Love Is Out, Violence In,” the Times reported, as the undercover activities of a policeman masquerading as a hippie were revealed. “I had to attend pad parties,” the cop said. “There was heavy incense, the interminable discordant records, the use of pot, speed, LSD. I saw girls and guys on bad LSD trips, screaming, weeping hysterically, and then lapsing into comas.”
Digging through my family archives (two drawers in my house that are crammed full of papers, photos, and other ephemera), I found some letters that epitomize the great divide between the hippies and the older generation. I’ve already mentioned my Uncle Paul, my mother’s younger brother, once a hippie traveling all over the country, now a lawyer in Chicago who is busy this weekend preparing for his son Joey’s Bar Mitzvah. Included in the cache of my grandfather’s papers that somehow ended up in my possession was a letter that Paul wrote from his new digs in San Francisco on September 30, 1971, to my cousin Howard who worked for Karoll’s, my grandfather’s chain of clothing stores. Paul was a radio DJ back then and was writing to Howard to see if he could get a loan from the family business to start a new venture booking bands in the Bay Area. He is going through Howard because he knew his father, my grandfather, would not be open to this idea, instead wanting 23-year-old Paul to come home and take his place in the family dynasty. The 12-page letter is a fascinating relic and Paul, I hope you’ll forgive me for printing an excerpt here without your permission (did you even know this letter existed?):
I believe you are chronologically close enough to my generation to understand the general strangulation that many of us feel in relating to the mammoth institutions of the established culture. Many people do not want to be cogs in a machine that by the machine’s standards is a success merely by the fact that it is getting bigger and bigger. This all has very little to do with capitalism or communism—the trend can be seen all over the world. Men and women around the world have stifled their creativity, needs and desires for self-fulfillment in order to survive in a world with things beyond their control. Perhaps I’m getting a little high flown here, lost in a whirlwind of rhetoric and I should get down to the meat of the matter.
I cannot tell other men how to live. You do what you see doing, what gets you off. My father is obviously immensely enjoying what he is doing. It is his own baby. He does what he does very well. I understand how hard it is for him to comprehend my actions over the last few years. I seem to be just wandering around, not really getting down to business. There is truth to what he says. I have been wandering, searching, weighing out the alternatives. I feel a great need now to really get down to business. But I have as great a need as he to be the captain of my own ship. He started his business with others from scratch. I have this same need to work out my own universe.
Beautifully stated, Paul! I’m sure my uncle never received the $12,000 loan he requested to start up this new business and represent San Francisco bands such as the Loading Zone, the Congress of Wonders, or Little John. Paul eventually did return to Chicago and put in time at the family business before heading off to law school. Among my grandfather’s papers, I also found a handwritten draft of a letter that he wrote to Paul during this period. While my grandfather probably considered himself a liberal politically, he seemed convinced that his son was becoming a dupe for the anti-Semitic commies:
I was pleased to receive your letter giving me your opinions on the Jewish population of America, with which I totally disagree. You evidently haven’t given this matter much thought or are influenced by people like yourself who are seeking to criticize the Jew because they believe they have found their true Messiah in their lack of sympathy and in their total abandonment of the beauty of Jewish life and its great universal teachings. Paul, what makes you believe every word uttered by the enemies of this country? I am not in favor of the Vietnam war, I am not in favor of bloodshed, but you treat every word published by propaganda artists for the communists as sacred. Paul, you are either not aware or “don’t give a damn” as to what happens to our people.
Paul, you are on a foolish destructive course and nothing but evil can come from it. You are fooling yourself, you have meaningless illusions, your house smells as though human sacrifices are being offered to your false god only now it is in the form of SMOKE that will someday hurt your whole mental process. Before you left to go to school in New York, you were an outstanding person who had a great potential to serve humanity, your people and yourself. You are dissipating that potential. Why don’t you awake and abandon your meaningless way of life? This is not a lecture, it is only both mother’s and my heart crying when we see such talent wasted in our beloved son. It is like putting a knife in our hearts. I pray every day to God who is above to set you straight in your thinking and help you realize that you are not half so smart as you think and that you have been influenced by people who are enemies of our people.
Oy. I only wish my grandfather could be here this weekend to watch his grandson Joey become a Bar Mitzvah under the proud gaze of my Uncle Paul.